The meeting had been raucous. Tempers flared. Many participants clutched placards. Tears were shed. Activists and residents painted the issues as starkly as possible. One side argued that nothing less than the multi-billion dollar restoration of the Everglades was at risk, along with South Florida's future water supply. Others asserted that hundreds of homeowners would be forced from their land, dealing a death blow to their American dreams. The day was November 12. More than a dozen speakers over roughly four hours pleaded before the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board. The issue: whether the government should buy a slice of Southwest Dade called the 81-2 Square Mile Area, or build a levee to lessen predicted flooding and allow homeowners to stay on the land.
As public comment wound down, the penultimate speaker, Joette Lorion, walked purposefully to the podium. Lorion is no stranger to the battleground of public forums. The 48-year-old has spent the last two decades as an antinuclear activist and environmentalist fighting government agencies and developers. In the past few years she has been president, vice president, and board member of Friends of the Everglades, a group founded by recently deceased ecosaint Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
"I'm an environmentalist, but I am not speaking today on behalf of any environmental group," Lorion began. Then she dropped a bombshell. "In fact, I will be tendering my resignation [from the Friends]." Her voice grew tremulous. "Not because I don't love my environmental group. I do. I respect them deeply. I respect all the environmentalists in this room -- but I think they are off the track."
Lorion then compared the government's insistent attempts to acquire the 81-2 Square Mile Area to the efforts of the policeman Javert in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Javert relentlessly chases a man for stealing a loaf of bread. "I used to think like all these people do," she said of her fellow environmentalists, "but they don't know what they are talking about."
Neither Lorion's nor residents' pleas swayed the board's nine members, who voted unanimously in favor of acquiring the area west of Krome Avenue between SW 168th Street and Richmond Drive. But with her comments Lorion highlighted a growing divide. Property rights proponents accuse ecoactivists of being high-handed and out of touch, while environmentalists brand their opponents greedy individualists uninterested in the common good.
The date that Joette Lorion started to distance herself from her peers is open to interpretation. It might be four years ago, when she began working as a consultant for the Miccosukees. (She won't disclose her salary.) In that capacity, Lorion advocated the tribe's right to build 65 houses along the environmentally sensitive Loop Road over the vehement objections of nature lovers and Everglades National Park Superintendent Richard Ring. The experience taught her to view the pronouncements of the National Park Service with a critical eye, she says.
Lorion traces her current position to the first time she visited the 81-2 Square Mile Area. She traveled there this year with retired U.S. Army Col. Terry Rice, the former head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Jacksonville District, who is now working with the Miccosukees. SFWMD is currently buying property in the area from willing sellers. Officials hope to own the entire 81-2 Square Mile Area by 2002.
Lorion expected to see a wetland. She had long heard the area was a vital section of northeast Shark River Slough, part of the River of Grass's original route to the sea. But it was dry. She learned the area is separated from the slough by Grossman's Ridge and is slightly elevated. As a result of the government's restoration of the River of Grass, water will flood in, SFWMD staff asserts; hence the need to either buy the 81-2 Square Mile Area or provide flood protection. Lorion is unconvinced flooding will be as bad as predicted.
Congress authorized construction of a levee system in 1989 to provide flood protection. Local officials rejected that option. Environmentalists applauded, raising the specter of a new West Kendall next to the Everglades. Once the residents got a little flood control, they would want more, the officials reasoned. Soon the county would be obligated to provide services. Land speculators and developers would be sure to follow.
At the governing board meeting, Lorion downplayed the threat. She also blasted the decision-making process. "What I am most concerned about here today is, I am a United States citizen and I sat through a process that I think is not fair," she told board members. Later she alleged there are flaws in a final report by a private company that examined options for the area. Costs differed between a draft and the released version. The price of buyout, SFWMD's favored option, decreased by $11 million in the final report to $112 million. (SFWMD Executive Director Sam Poole says such changes are common.)
SFWMD then joined with other federal, state, and county regulators to form a team that would again review the options. The group contracted a consulting firm called Montgomery Watson, which wrote another report, this time using statistical models. It factored in costs to Miami-Dade County for providing services to residents. It concluded buyout was the best choice. Lorion argues the analysis is deceptive. If Montgomery Watson had considered flood prevention and residents' preferences as the most important factors, levee construction would have been top-rated.
"If the district review team was just a fact-finding committee, they should have just given you facts," she told the board. "Instead they gave you conclusions."
Lorion argues the report may not be valid, since the team's meetings were not open to the public. That's a possible violation of Florida's Sunshine Law. (District officials contend there was no policy recommendation, so the group did not break the law.)
Most important, Lorion says, the SFWMD estimate of $112 million is too low and the sources for the money are still unclear. The U.S. Department of the Interior has pledged to pay half the cost which, if only $60 million, would amount to the Interior's entire fiscal year budget to purchase environmentally sensitive lands in Florida. SFWMD wants Miami-Dade County to pay 25 percent, but Lorion believes that's unlikely. (Dade environmental director John Renfro is currently preparing a report for the county manager on the subject.)
In addition Lorion points out Congress has already allocated money to build levees. "You could restore flow without getting [residents] out and it would be much cheaper and much faster," she says. "There are areas we have already trashed. This is one of them. Why don't we just slap up a levee and get on with it?"
She also fears that video tape or articles that depict the government forcing area families from their homes would destroy public sympathy for Everglades restoration. Project opponents are already making common cause with residents. "It's just fodder to all these groups that want to stop restoration," she says.
Add landowner litigation to the mix and the purchase of the 81-2 Square Mile Area could drag on forever, she argues.
Some of Lorion's former peers are disturbed by her position. They question her motives: Is she trying to open the Everglades to development by her employers, the Miccosukees? "What she has done is actually quite divisive," argues one prominent environmentalist who declined to be named. "I think this is a very bizarre transformation and it does seem to be connected with her advocacy on behalf of the Miccosukees."
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Lorion contends her views have not changed. At the meeting she foretold the death of the Everglades. "I see northeast Shark River Slough will never be rehydrated. I see Everglades restoration and the park going down the drain," she said fighting back sobs. "I love you all but I am sorry, I had to say this."
Days later in her Kendall office, she reflected on her words. "It's not a lot of fun looking like I'm on the wrong side of an issue," she says. "I'm not used to that." She faults her fellow environmentalists for losing perspective. Lorion recalls once being told that a zealot was one who lost direction and then redoubled effort. Environmentalists might argue that describes her. She sees it differently. "I quit the environmental movement to save the Everglades," she insists.